Making Hiring More Humane

In my last post, I advised, rather tepidly, those seeking faculty appointments to research each institution and write careful, individually tailored letters—in other words, to control what they can. Unfortunately, there is little else that they can control. Indeed, applying for employment, academic or otherwise, is unnecessarily dehumanizing and degrading. To submit an application for employment is to have it sucked into a “black hole” from which no light, not to mention information, ever escapes. Even the person hired hardly ever learns why he or she turned out to be so lucky.

Under Scrutiny

Under Scrutiny

In the Dark

Human resource officials and hiring officers claim today that the crush of job applications during the Great Recession and its aftershocks prevents them from responding to each applicant. With some 5 applicants for every position (worse in some areas such as college faculty positions), one can understand their frustration. Nevertheless, the nearly ubiquitous online application systems have removed much of the drudgery from hiring officials’ duties. Most of the time, these systems generate some sort of auto-response indicating that the application materials have been received or filed. But sometimes, not even that minimal acknowledgment is forthcoming.

Even with the convenience of auto-responders, no information is ever provided to an applicant about whom to contact with a problem or question. In the corporate world, the degree of anonymity is directly proportional to the size of the business: mega-corporations such as IBM or United Health Group never reveal the names or any contact information about hiring officers, at least until an interview is granted. Universities generally operate similarly: only applicants invited for an interview meet the search committee and/or senior administrative hiring officer. The entire process remains as faceless and as unaccountable as possible.

Oddly, large organizations routinely fork out millions of dollars to put on a human face for the public (“I’m an IBMer!” or as Ellen Page intones, “Cisco, the human network!”). But for folks applying for jobs at the back door, organizations routinely maintain a Kafkaesque anonymity: no discernible human being is ever responsible for a hiring decision, especially a negative one. That the hiring process is also an exercise in public relations never occurs to corporate or academic executives.

Long waiting periods accompany lack of personal contact or information. Some online application systems provide minimal status updates during the initial waiting period that let an applicant see that his/her application is “under review” or that the “position is no longer available.” Beyond that, most organizations provide no updated information whatever. In some cases, the same position can be re-listed with no notice to current applicants. Unless invited for an interview, applicants are offered no feedback, not even a simple notification that the position has been filled.

Waiting times can be insufferably long, especially in academia. Academic search committees typically stretch their labor over several weeks or months. They typically provide no notice to rejected applicants regarding the outcome until campus interviews of finalists have occurred, an offer accepted, and the ink on the contract has dried. (One of the worst cases that has come to my attention involved an applicant who waited for 7 full months after finalist interviews with the committee and president before learning in a requested email from the human resources director that the position had been filled by someone else.) Businesses usually act more rapidly, but not more humanely. There must be a better way to keep applicants informed, to let them know that their interest is valued, and to treat them with respect and dignity.

How to Improve the Hiring Process

The very first thing that organizations should recognize is that their hiring procedures can influence their reputation. Market research routinely shows that persons who have a positive experience of a company will tell 3 other persons,  but those who have a negative experience will inform 11 others. Persons who are interested enough in an organization to apply for employment and who, therefore, might come to know something about the organization, could well spread their informed opinion widely, for good or ill. The hiring process, to put it bluntly, is yet another marketing opportunity; organizations should make it as positive as possible.

As someone who has served as a hiring officer and on numerous search committees and who has also applied for positions in academia and other organizations, I offer the following recommendations for a more humane process:

  • Acknowledge having received every application.
  • Provide every applicant with the name and contact information for a person within the organization to whom any questions or problems can be directed. (I can hear the howls of protest: “We can’t afford that!” Baloney. Corporations are making record profits; universities typically waste enough money to cover the extra cost of complying. Find the resources.)
  • The hiring officer should personally inform every unsuccessful applicant of the results of the search and offer to discuss it if necessary. This chore should not be delegated to some subordinate. (I was wrong to have delegated this, myself.)
  • Notify every unsuccessful applicant of his or her fate immediately after that decision has been reached even if the search has not been completed.
  • Provide constructive feedback, such as need for improved résumé, application letter, skill set, references, etc., for applicants who request it; suggestions need not be lengthy or detailed, but they can help dispel the suspicion of discrimination. (Organizational lawyers might object to this offer, but research in the health professions field has shown that clients who are treated respectfully are less likely to sue.)
  • End all forms of illegal discrimination (let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that it does not occur).
  • Do not discriminate against the unemployed or persons who have recent gaps in their employment record (there can be good, private reasons for both, and neither automatically justifies the inference that their skills are not up to date).
  • Eliminate demeaning “interview” questions such as, “Why do you want this job?” or “Tell us about your 2 best strengths and your 2 worst weaknesses.” It would be better to outline a problem or challenge actually facing your organization and ask an applicant how he/she might approach it.
  • Do not presume that an “overqualified” applicant will become a disgruntled employee; such a person might be quite grateful for the position (otherwise, why would he/she have applied?).
  • Above all, ensure that you and your team treat every applicant with the same courtesy, dignity, respect, and considerateness that you would like were you, instead, the one applying for a position with your organization.

Of course, I might have missed something. My criticisms of and suggestions for improving the hiring process are based on my own experience and that of acquaintances. Nearly everyone complains about the lack of information, unaccountability, anonymity, and  the eg0-crushing nature of the hiring process. As a society, we can do better, and we should. If you have other suggestions, please offer them.

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